Valley of the (not so) Cheapjack Franchises: The Texas Chainsaw Remakes

Probably unpopularly, all of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre canon ranks as one of my least favourite series’ in horror. The 1974-1994 set (plus that godawful 2013 instalment) do next to nothing for me, but what of the Platinum Dunes/Michael Bay ‘re-imaginings’?

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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

3.5 Stars  2003/18/95m

“What you know about fear…doesn’t even come close.”

Director: Marcus Nispel / Writer: Scott Kosar / Cast: Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, Erica Leerhsen, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Vogel, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, Terrence Evans, Marietta Marich.

Body Count: 7


Michael Bay has much to answer for, and I imagine a mob of horror fans would crucify him for being the poster boy of the remake era, which was a quiet zone of horror filmmaking around 2003, until the announcement of a “re-imagining” of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Twelve years on, it’s an easy equation to comprehend. The 1974 film was notorious, banned in numerous countries, and had a name that is far more suggestive than any of the content. Sooner or later, someone was going to say “Enough with sequels! Remake it!”

Fortunately for me, I have no strong feelings towards the original. I first saw it at a midnight screening in the late 90s and it was a headache of a film. My friend turned to me halfway through and said: “This is probably the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen.” I found it entertaining enough, but not the monstrosity we all expected (same with The Exorcist, which also lost its UK ban in the same time period), and nothing I really cared about seeing again.

Authentic 70s names: Erin, Andy, Pepper, Morgan, Kemper

Our authentic 70s characters: Erin, Andy, Pepper, Morgan, Kemper

The 2003 over-do remains traceably loyal to the ‘true’ story: A van of five teenagers, on their way back from Mexico and on to see Lynyrd Skynyrd, roll into a nightmare. Stopping to help out a girl walking down the road is the grave error they make, as she wastes little time in putting a pistol in her mouth. They find that summoning help is difficult and the locals seem less than fazed about their dilemma, one which they soon argue about: Leave the body and scram, or wait for help?

From here, the Dead Teenager conventions come into play: Two of the group go to the creepy house nearby where one vanishes, looking for him reveals Leatherface, who gives chase wielding the titular weapon. Toss in the imitation-Sheriff (inimitably played by R. Lee Ermey), who the kids wrongly trust, and they sink deeper into the nightmare.

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Before long it’s all down to off-the-marks final girl Erin (Biel), whose luck just keeps getting worse: Everybody she calls on for help is part of the extended family of loons, and she’s soon at their mercy until she manages to escape. From there, it’s abrasive cat and mouse scenes as Leatherface stalks her through the woods, an abandoned shack, eventually to the abattoir.

Whereas the old film pre-dated our understanding of killed-one-by-one plot structure, and is therefore only arguably a slasher film at all, there is no such uncertainty in the remake: We know Erin is going to be the last one standing, we know the others will be laid to waste (it’s just a case of picking the order in which they go), and we hope she’s able to exact a gruesome revenge on her captors.

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So everything works on a mechanical level, but the over-stylized look of the film begins to work against it after awhile, and the fact that Wrong Turn had been released just a few months earlier hoovers up much of the ‘originality’ of the ‘re-imagining': Dirt, grime, rednecks who don’t give a shit.

Everything is very dark and earthy, supposedly to give it an authentic look, but at times it goes too far, while it clashes with the youngsters, who aren’t convincingly ’70s kids’ at all, no matter if you deduct cellphones and brand names, the language they use and even their names are too contemporary to wash. Gunnar Hansen – the original Leatherface – pointed out that the film was shot at chest-level to keep Jessica Biel’s bust in the frame as much as possible, not to mention the moments where her white blouse gets very, very wet.

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Roger Ebert famously gave this film a rare no-stars, and his reasoning is valid enough, but it’s still a solid remake, not too entrenched in the cynicism which was to come with every other horror title they began stuffing through the machine. It’s just that they ‘re-imagined’ it with too little subtlety, so it’s more of a box-ticking exercise than a grafted horror experience.

Blame it for ushering in the dawn of the remake, but enjoy it for breaking out of the tame, studio-slick horror that was beginning to wane in the wake of Scream.

 *

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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING

2 Stars 2006/18/92m

“Witness the birth of fear.”

Director: Jonathan Liebesman / Writers: Sheldon Turner & David J. Schow / Cast: Jordana Brewster, Matthew Bomer, Diora Baird, Taylor Handley, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, Lee Tergesen, Terrence Evans, Marietta Marich, Kathy Lamkin, Cyia Batten, Lew Temple.

Body Count: 10


While I remember going to see this at the movies with my pal Earl, I don’t remember buying the DVD, but there it was on my shelf, possibly unwatched.

As the 2003 film ended the trail of horror left by Leatherface and the Hewitts, the only logical next step to cash-in on its success was to go back… back to “The Beginning”. Ish.

Starting with a very brief 1939-set intro that sees Thomas Hewitt born in a meat-packing factory, while the credits whirr, there are old sepia photos and doctor’s notes about his deformity and within minutes it’s 1969 and Tommy loses his job at the slaughterhouse when it’s closed down as the town dies (economically, it’s not chainsawed to pieces).

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He flips and kills the owner, leading to his clan intervening and ultimately shooting the local Sheriff (“the only law enforcement left”) and taking up cannibalism in the blink of an eye.

Elsewhere, a jeep of two couples heading to Austin where brothers Eric and Dean are going to enlist and be carted off to Vietnam, hurtles towards the Hewitt residence. With their girlfriends in tow for one last weekend of fun, it all goes to shit when they’re accosted by a motorcycling robber, hit a cow at high speed, and crash.

They believe they’re in luck when ‘the Sheriff’ turns up almost immediately, but when he guns down the would-be robber, something seems just a bit more than ‘off’. Eric’s girlfriend, Chrissie, was hurtled into the long grass in the crash and hides while her friends are assaulted and driven away to be tortured and eaten.

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The rest of the film is largely a re-tread (pre-tread?): Chrissie sneaks her way into the house to try and save them, but is too late and eventually ends up caught and invited to dinner, in a scene reminiscent of the 1974 film that was never ‘re-imagined’ into the remake. So samey is it, that she’s chased through the woods to the slaughterhouse for the finale! And, being that we know the Hewitts weren’t caught for a few more years, things don’t look good for anybody surviving this one.

Production values are high, as before, this time with Jonathan Liebesman’s slightly more grounded direction, but whatever appealed to me in 2006 has since gone: Watching the film in 2015 was a pure endurance test. On the one hand it brings nothing new to the table, a few explanations of character attributes aren’t reason enough to make a whole new movie, and it also made contact with, and crossed, my ‘line’.

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My ‘line’ exists where fun entertainment ends and cruelty begins. While the 2003 film wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels of joy, it was exhilarating without being stupidly violent; Here, the film practically revels in demonstrating how gross it is, with peeled off faces, blood rain, chainsaw vivisections… But not an ounce of a good time. A scene in which a dying character says they can no longer feel their limbs and are cold is upsetting, not exhilarating.

Plenty of people will say “well, that’s real horror” etc., but horror is like comedy – we all find different things acceptable or funny. A horror film without the re-equilibrium is just depressing, which is why the first one gets a pass and this doesn’t. There’s no element of mystery or surprise, and rooting for a survivor is futile – The Beginning is just killing for the sake of it.

The film skates over how quickly the family turns from struggling to evil, embracing their newfound cannibalism in what must be no longer than twenty-four hours, and the script makes Ermey the focal point over and above both Leatherface and the tormented teenagers, unable to realise that what made him so good before was moderation. He’s a one-liner away from Freddy Krueger levels of camp at times.

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In the much thinner plus column, Jordana Brewster is a solid heroine, slightly more believable than Jessica Biel was as a child of the time. She has an opportunity to escape without being detected, but is loyal that she goes back to try and save a friend she can hear screaming elsewhere. It’s that pivot scene that tells us a lot about her character – she’s admirably unselfish, regardless of the eventual cost.

A depressing experience in all, although better than the original sequels and the 2013 film, serving only to compound my resistance to this series as a whole: It’s just not very good.

Blurbs-of-interest: Erica Leerhsen was also in Wrong Turn 2 (ha!) and Lonely Joe; Terrence Evans was in The Pumpkin Karver; Diora Baird was in the even worse Stan Helsing; Lee Tergesen was in The Collection; Cyia Batten was in Killer Movie; Andrew Bryniarski was in The Curse of El Charro; Marcus Nispel directed the Friday the 13th remake; Jonathan Liebesman directed Darkness Falls.

Dire-logue’s Greatest Hits Volume 12: All you ever think about it sex

Sex and slasher films… They in love! Must be, all they ever do is talk about it…

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BACK SLASH (2005): “I’m a double major: computer science and history… My virginity is not a clue.”

BLOODY MURDER (1999): “If it comes down to it I’m willing to be with you carnally.”

CHEERLEADER CAMP (1987): “I’ll drop dead if you’ve ever tried head.”

CLUB DREAD  (2004): “People please – is it too much to ask? Have sex with the guests!”

DETOUR  (2003): “Mm, tastes like micro-phallus.”

THE FEAR: RESURRECTION (1999): “Everything is about getting laid.”

HARD TO DIE (1990) “I just wanna get my clothes on and get the hell out of here.”

iMURDERS (2008): “It’s difficult to put the milk back in the carton when you’ve already had the cereal.”

MIDNIGHT MOVIE (2008): “They say scary movies are an aphrodisiac…” / “If you get turned on by this we’re breaking up!”

SAVAGE WEEKEND (1976): “Sweet talk won’t do it fellas, I’m into rough trade.”

THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE MASSACRE (2005): “Do you think she’s hot with her big tits and no panties?”

TORMENTED (2009): “Just because she’s head girl doesn’t mean she gives good head.”

WACKO (1982): “I can’t help it if I sound like a lawnmower every time I get excited.”

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THE LAST HORROR FILM

2.5 Stars  1982/18/83m

“A cast of thousands…but only one killer.”

A.k.a. The Fanatic

Director/Writer: David Winters / Writers: Judd Hamilton & Tom Klassen / Cast: Caroline Munro, Joe Spinnell, Judd Hamilton, Glenn Jacobson, Mary Spinnell, Devin Goldenberg, David Winters, Stanley Susanne Benton.

Body Count: 5

Laughter Lines: “Many people believe that repeated viewings of these films is warping the minds of you young people…”


This cheeky cheapie was shot at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and, while it uses this backdrop well for a series of mysterious disappearances accredited to lonely filmmaker Spinnell, it never really finds itself, balancing somewhere between horror and outright parody. The latter is quite plausible as it’s the reunion of Munro and Spinnell post-Maniac and even features Joe’s own mom!

What prevents this from becoming nothing but a European retread of the Lustig flick is the fabulous – though thoroughly understated – final twist which you really don’t see coming.

Munro is good as cheesy horror actress Jana Bates, who is voted best actress out of a list including Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway, while she sports a Bride of Frankenstein-esque do. Spinnell is desperate to get her to star in his film and will do just about anything to ensure a private audience with her – even kill?

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The film also makes radio broadcast analogies with real life stalkers and attempted assassinations with inserted slick jokes here and there; my favorite being Munro’s frantic escape from her hotel room into the lobby where the crowd thinks it’s all a publicity stunt as she sprints by in a towel!

Blurbs-of-interest: As well as Maniac, Munro was also in Slaughter High and Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas; Devin Goldenberg was also in Savage Weekend;

Enthusiasm Wasteland

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SLEEPAWAY CAMP III: TEENAGE WASTELAND

3 Stars  1989/18/76m

“She’s back to slash last year’s record.”

A.k.a. Nightmare Vacation III

Director: Michael A. Simpson / Writer: Fritz Gordon / Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Tracy Griffith, Cliff Brand, Mark Oliver, Michael J. Pollard, Sandra Dorsey, Haynes Brooke, Kim Wall, Daryl Wilcher, Kyle Holman, Jill Terashita, Kashina Kessler, Randi Layne, Chung Yen Tsay, Jarrett Beal, Sonya Maddox, Stacie Lambert.

Body Count: 16

Laughter Lines: “Seems like every time I go to camp, somebody loses their head.”


Shot back-to-back with Unhappy Campers and then released a year after, there’s a distinct change in tone, even from the same six-week filming window, as if everyone was so tired they’d started to give up caring and just wanted to be sent home.

One year after her massacre at Camp Rolling Hills, puritanical transsexual (surely a paradox!?) summer camp enthusiast Angela Baker kills and replaces a girl headed to Camp New Horizons, an ‘experiment in sharing’, which puts six inner city kids with six suburbanites – all at the same campsite.

Naturally, before long these stereotypes begin getting on Angela’s wick and she resolves to ‘weed out the bad’ once again. This time around, there’s a nasty racist girl, gang members, a vandal, a bondage-loving wannabe politician, plus the usual parade of girls willing to take their tops off on film – one of whom we are supposed to believe is interested in having it away with Michael J. Pollard’s camp leader. Weirdaway Camp.

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The spanner in Angela’s plan is the cop father of one of her earlier victims has stepped up as counsellor. Split into three groups, Angela rapidly does away with her comrades before moving on to the next team, claiming she’s been asked to trade places with somebody else.

While Springsteen is her usual appealing self (albeit with a sorrowful blow-out), it looks as if Unhappy Campers took the lion’s share of the budget, and FX work this time has borne the brunt of the cutbacks: Several victims are killed with a stick, and large parts of the grislier murders were either cut or occurred off camera, leaving the film barren of its predecessor’s gory humour.

Melanie Griffith’s sister Tracy plays the nominal final girl, but even she has little to do. In a film the same length as the last one with as many characters, there’s precious little time on screen for a lot of them, this time all named after The Brady Bunch kids (if you’re rich) or West Side Story (if you’re poor). Jill Terashita stands out as wasted-too-soon goth Arab.

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Entertaining at its best, shitty and badly acted at its worst, at 76 minutes (PAL) at least it’s short.

Blurb-of-interest: Pollard was also in American Gothic.

Equal opportunity objectification

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FRAT HOUSE MASSACRE

3 Stars  2008/116m

“Rush week at this college just got a lot more dangerous…”

Director/Writer: Alex Pucci / Writer: Draven Gonzalez / Cast: Jon Fleming, Rane Jameson, Niki Notarile, Chris Prangley, Lisa DiCicco, Andrew Giordano, Michael Galante, Ryan Ross, Adam Simon, Georgia Gladden, Bethany Taylor, Jim Ford.

Body Count: 28 (give or take)


This head-scratchingly odd indie film comes from the makers of Camp Daze. No, hey, don’t go – it’s nowhere near that bad!

Beginning in that wonderful year of my birth – 1978 – newly graduated high-schooler Bobby goes off to party with friends, only to end up in a coma after a car accident. His big bro, Sean, returns to college, where his Delta Iota Espilon (DIE, naturally) fraternity brothers take hazing new pledges to the extremes – they kill them.

Why? It’s never really addressed, it just is. But it begs the question: How do they replenish their numbers? The head of this sadistic snake is frat president Mark (Kerr Smith-a-like Fleming), who takes great pleasure in getting desperate freshmen to blow their own brains out or cut their own throats. Bodies are later devoured by pigs at a nearby farm.

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Sean’s guilt over his brother leads him to try and leave the frat, only to be murdered by his ‘brothers’. At the same time, Bobby awakes from his coma and, come the fall of 1979, goes off to the same college – revenge being the class he most looks forward to.

More dumb pledges are killed, Bobby gets angrier. And soon, members of the fraternity and some girlfriends begin dying ahead of a big disco party, which, we know, will see the killer go for gold.

While it all sounds run of the mill, like Camp DazeFrat House Massacre doesn’t exactly shy away from its homoerotic undertones: There’s T&A as usual, but also some frontal male nudity, lots of ass, and no shortage of hard bodied young men in nothing but tighty-whities. That said, nothing ‘gay’ happens in the film. The frat boys are a bunch of nasty misogynists, but scenes where one of them masturbates from the door whilst watching a couple have sex, and the so-close-they-might-kiss whispers in the ears Mark does to the pledges… It dances along the line, never crossing it, but flirting with the idea. Possibly an allegory for the American fraternity experience? Who knows, we don’t have them in Europe.

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The late-70s setting works well, not too far off the achievements of The House of the Devil in terms of look and feel, with all the clothing, disco tunes (courtesy of Claude Simonetti, no less), cars, and ornaments you could imagine. The only flaw is hair. Everyone’s hair gives them away as being ‘of the now’ (and Fleming’s eyebrows come to think of it).

Brutal and bloody, way too long (though I read there is a sub-100 minute cut), and confusing come the end with it’s supernatural plot device, but revenge is most certainly served, and the identity of the killer is not quite as cut n’ dried as predicted.

Blurbs-of-interest: Fleming and Taylor were both in Camp Daze; Jim Ford was in Knock Knock.

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